New Jersey Voters Give Thumbs-Up to $500 Million Ballot Question

Funds will go to expanding career-training facilities at high schools and county colleges, tightening school security, and getting lead out of drinking water at Garden State schools

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Voters yesterday narrowly approved incurring $500 million in new debt to pay for a wide range of initiatives aimed at upgrading educational facilities in New Jersey.

With 99 percent of votes counted, the only public question on this fall’s ballot passed by roughly 85,000 votes of nearly 2 million cast. The approval continued a trend in which voters have authorized new borrowing; the last proposed bond issue to be defeated was in 2007.

The victory margin of less than 100,000 is small compared with prior bond questions. The measure lost in Atlantic, Cape May, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Salem, Sussex, and Warren counties. These are all counties that went for Republican Bob Hugin in his unsuccessful bid for Bob Menendez’s Senate seat.

The bond issue will fund expansion of career-training facilities at high schools and county colleges, upgrade school security, and protect students from lead, increasingly found in drinking water in school systems around the state.

Bipartisan support for ballot question

The borrowing enjoyed bipartisan support in the Legislature, as well as backing from prominent business groups and advocates for vocational-technical schools. Initially, lawmakers approved a $1 billion bond issue, but Gov. Phil Murphy, expressing concerns about the state’s significant debt burden, cut the borrowing in half in a conditional veto.

“We think this will be a game changer for workforce development in New Jersey,’’ said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools. “It will provide a tremendous boost to New Jersey’s economy. The investment will expand technical shops and labs at vocational schools and county colleges and provide young people with well-paying jobs in today’s economy.’’

With its passage, $350 million of the bond issue will fund building and equipping facilities geared to technical education programs in the state — a need detailed in a recent study by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Many employers are having trouble finding workers with the necessary technical skills to fill jobs.

In addition, a portion of those funds will be used to pay for school security upgrades, an issue lawmakers sought to address following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year that left 17 people dead. Another $50 million is targeted to county colleges to improve career-training programs.

The final chunk of money — $100 million — will fund fixing water systems in schools where unsafe levels of lead have been found due to aging pipes and service mains. More than 300 school systems in New Jersey have found lead levels in drinking water in at least one outlet in state-mandated testing.

Weighing the debt burden

The chief criticism about the ballot question focused on increasing debt in a state already carrying a total of $46.1 billion in bonded debt, according to the most recent state debt report from the Department of Treasury. That appeared to spur opposition to the new borrowing initiative.

Erica Jedynak, state director of Americans for Prosperity-NJ, noted the governor’s conditional veto to trim back the borrowing reflects the problems caused by the huge new debt the state would take on.

“That kind of no fiscal planning is just not acceptable to taxpayers,’’ she said.

Annual payments needed to pay off the state’s bonded debt now total more than $4 billion in the current fiscal year, accounting for nearly one-eighth of the state budget. In recent months, more than $1 billion in new borrowing has been authorized — all without any voter approval.

That included the Murphy administration giving the go-ahead for $600 million in borrowing to fix a crucial commuter-rail bridge near Secaucus Junction, and refinancing of $300 million in long-term debt to finance renovation of the State House. Also, just last year, voters authorized $125 million in new borrowing for local library facility upgrades.

But Savage argued the new investments in the bond issue will provide a tremendous boost to the state’s economy. “Voters have concerns about borrowing, but ultimately the investments will benefit the state in the long run,’’ she said.

The last time a bond issue was rejected by voters involved a proposed $450 million to fund stem-cell research at state universities, although at the same time voters approved a $200 million open-space preservation question.

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